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MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-2 D.C. United

Jul 5, 2014, 10:26 PM EDT

One game, 100 words (or less):  Toronto is typically thought of as a defense-first team, but in the second half on Saturday at BMO Field, the defense was the first to let the Reds down. Thanks to three key Toronto errors over the game’s final 36 minutes (see below), D.C. United was able to snap TFC’s six-match unbeaten run, taking three points in Michael Bradley‘s return with a 2-1 win in Ontario.

Three moments that mattered:

1. 54′ – Too easy for Nick DeLeon – Toronto’s defense breaks down after Luis Silva and DeLeon force a turnover high on D.C.’s right flank, sending DeLeon in on the Reds’ defense. Cutting around two sprawling TFC defenders, DeLeon punches a left-footed shot past Joe Bendik, turing one moment of uncertainty between Justin Morrow and Nick Hagglund into the match’s first goal.

source: Getty Images

Perry Kitchen’s second half header helped vault D.C. United back to the top of the Eastern Conference. (Photo: Getty Images)

2. 69′ – Caldwell misjudges the corner – TFC responded quickly, with Jermain Defoe setting up Jackson for a shot that turned into Luke Moore’s equalizing goal, but another defensive error provided the match’s decisive moment. On a Silva corner from the right, Steven Caldwell misjudged the flight of the ball, jumping under the cross to the benefit of Perry Kitchen. The D.C. midfielder headed home his second goal of the year to make it 2-1.

3. 88′ – Nick Hagglund’s sent off – Toronto had occasionally threatened for an equalizer over the previous 19 minutes and would do so again through Daniel Lovitz in stoppage time. By then, the team was dealing with a man disadvantage thanks to another Hagglund error. Capping off his most-trying night as a pro, the rookie let Eddie Johnson get behind him in the closing moments, allowing the D.C. forward to have a clear path toward goal. Instead of get into a footrace, Hagglund pulled at “E.J.” from behind, denying him an obvious goal scoring opportunity. Though David Gantar initially showed yellow, a consultation with assistant Gianni Facchini produced a change of heart. Hagglund was sent off.

Three lessons going forward:

1. The Michael Bradley paradox – Toronto went 3-0-3 in six games without their star midfielder/ The first game he returns, they lose at home. Something must be up, right? Of course, there is, but what you conclude will depend on how you look at today’s game.

Despite losing, Toronto out-shot D.C. 19-7 and put six shots on target to United’s two. That’s right – D.C.’s only two attempts on goal came off the errors that produced their goals.

If that’s a Michael Bradley issue, the causation’s escaping me. Maybe the teams’ intensity diminishes when its midfield general returns. If so, why is Toronto tuning out with Bradley on the field but seems to hold no such awe of Jermain Defoe?

This just looks like one of those days that happens occasionally in a 34-game season.

2. It’s D.C.’s formula, though – For United, however, these types of games seem to be happening too often. Despite returning to the top of the Eastern Conference, D.C.’s only averaging 11.6 shots per game, 16th in the league. They’re conceding only slightly more (12.2), but that’s not a disparity you’d associate with a first place team. Usually better teams create more shots, allow fewer.

Usually. There are cases where teams actually (if only implicitly) play to those numbers. Most teams want to win the chances battle, but some don’t care as much. They’re willing to create more chances as long as theirs are better quality-wise, de-prioritizing the chance-battle relative to other teams.

That’s D.C. United. They don’t take too many risks. They wait for you to make mistakes, and while that occasionally leaves them playing on the back foot, it also allows them to limit the danger of the shots they give up.

At the same time, they remain ready to take advantage of their opponents errors. When a team’s defenders play around with the ball, allow D.C. to create a turnover and give the Black and Red a second half lead, their tactics leave them better equipped to see out a result.

In that way, the team’s become a type of smash-and-grab expert. How long it will last remains to be seen, but we’re far beyond expecting an outright collapse for D.C. United.

3. Is Steve Birnbaum playing his way into the job? – Jeff Parke hasn’t been great this season. Neither has Bobby Boswell for that matter. Both players have been fine, but neither are so good that they should take time away from a highly regarded rookie who’s proven he can keep up.

The question is whether Steve Birnbaum has done that. Filling in for Parke, the 2014 SuperDraft’s number two pick has four good starts over the last month. D.C.’s only giving up one goal-per-game while claiming seven points. Along the way, Birnbaum’s been solid.

At what point does Ben Olsen give the kid the spot? Probably when he’s convinced he’s better than Parke, and given the D.C. boss sees the players in practice, he knows a lot more about each one. Maybe Parke is just better right now. Or, maybe the team’s going to sign Oguchi Onyewu. Who knows?

At some point, though, Birnbaum may provide enough proof that he’s ready to start. Four games isn’t enough, but is five? Six? Regardless, the rookie starting to make his claim.

Where this leaves them:

  • Toronto remains in fourth in the East, seven points behind D.C., though they maintain three games in hand.
  • With the victory, D.C. United’s back on top of the conference, their 28 points leaving them three points clear of Sporting Kansas City.

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